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Reviewed by:
  • Literature, Science, and the New Humanities
  • Nancy Easterlin
Literature, Science, and the New Humanities, by Jonathan Gottschall; xvi & 217 pp. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, $84.95 cloth, $26.95 paper.

In Literature, Science, and the New Humanities, Jonathan Gottschall urges fellow literary scholars to embrace the scientific method to cure their discipline's current malaise. Drawing on commentary on the current state of literary studies from many scholars within the field, Gottschall concludes that "the prognosis is bad: the primary theoretical, methodological, and attitudinal struts that support the field are suffering pervasive rot" (p. 3). Although the postmodernist eagerness to prioritize insolubility as a core feature of literary understanding has had a central role in shaping the current dilemma, the crisis actually originates, according to Gottschall, in the failure of literary scholars to produce "durable knowledge," a failure that spans the history of literary scholarship and is a feature of schools and approaches that are in other respects mutually antagonistic (p. 7). While the results of science have been applied to literary study with varying success many times before, this is not what Gottschall has in mind, because only scientific method can shrink the space of possible explanation and so produce meaningful results.

Gottschall's book is divided into two major parts, the first of which contains three short chapters devoted to the theoretical rationale, and the second of which provides four examples of the application of quantitative methods to folk tales. In the first chapter, Gottschall argues for consilience between the humanities and the sciences, focusing principally on the value of the evolutionary paradigm and placing both misunderstandings about evolution and the shortcomings of Darwin's thought in historical perspective. In "On Method," Gottschall presents the bulk of his argument for the embrace of scientific methodology within literary studies. In the final chapter of Part I, "On Attitude," Gottschall argues for a rehabilitation of Arnoldian disinterestedness in contradistinction to "the boundary-wrecking juggernaut of Theory" (p. 68). The four chapters in Part II describe the methods employed and explain the results of several studies, focused on, respectively, the characteristics of heroines; recent feminist analyses of fairytales; emphases on male and female attractiveness; and the universality of romantic love. [End Page 230]

Gottschall articulates the view of a small but prominent group of scholars who believe that literary studies has much to gain through empirical and quantitative research. In this sense, Literature, Science, and the New Humanities makes an important contribution to debates about scientifically informed literary studies. But the title of Gottschall's book alone suggests that he aims at more than a modest proposal for the usefulness of testable methods. For those interested in how such a methodological shift fits into a general reconceptualization of the purpose and organization of literary studies—a group I deem to be Gottschall's primary audience—the book comes up frustratingly short of its goal.

A proposal to reorganize or reconstitute a discipline should tacitly address an array of questions about the discipline's purpose (then, now, and in the future); about the object of study and its likeness to or difference from objects studied by the newly proposed methods; and about the relationship between scholarship and teaching and, correspondingly, the curricular implications of the new proposal. One of the problems is that Gottschall assumes at the outset that the goal of literary studies is about producing "durable knowledge." This is a position well worth arguing for, but it is hardly self-evident and unproblematic, or for that matter a historically recognized goal of literary studies. The institutional study of vernacular literatures dates only to the late nineteenth century, and the sharpening of focus on literary works that attended Russian, Leavisite, and New Critical formalisms in the first half of the twentieth century ironically exposed the difficulty of objective studies of the text by virtue of an inevitable emphasis on interpretation. Meanwhile, literary historicism, which preceded formalisms and whose value is still well recognized, and which arguably produces "durable knowledge" (since facts are hard to refute), seems to all parties insufficient as a sole method of literary study. How do quantitative and empirical studies complement literary historical and interpretive...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 230-233
Launched on MUSE
2009-04-15
Open Access
No
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